Chapter 4. Consumer care – Fashion & Sustainability

Chapter 4: Consumer care

Designing to reduce the impact of the laundering or consumer-care phase of the life cycle has the potential to bring great benefits with some clothes. For many frequently washed garments, the resource consumption associated with use patterns dominates all other life-cycle stages; the energy needed to launder a polyester garment over the course of its life is around four times the energy needed to make it. Of course, this is not the case for all garments – coats, for instance, are rarely cleaned and so the impacts of laundering are small relative to the impacts of production. But for those items that are washed frequently, laundering is likely to be the most major source of resource use and pollution across the garment’s life – so much so that the United Nations Environment Programme has launched a campaign specifically targeting the jeans-laundering habits of young people as a way to reduce energy consumption.93

The knowledge that washing and drying clothes creates considerably more impact than growing fibre, processing yarn and garment cut and sew perhaps feels counterintuitive, for the impact of clothes care is largely invisible and widely distributed – in every home in every land – rather than concentrated in the archetypal resource-consuming, polluting mill or factory. But when recent figures from the UK are put into the mix, the extent and potential impact of home laundering is made more real: 21 million washing machines (in a population of 60 million), 11.5 million tumble dryers, and between 274 and 343 loads of washing per household per annum.94 Collectively, UK washing machines consume 4.5 TWh (terawatt hours) of energy every year (roughly equivalent to the annual energy output of an average power plant): clearly a substantial value.

The realization that most impacts associated with a garment occur in the laundry suggests that one of the most influential sustainability strategies would be to change how people wear, wash and dry clothes. Even a small change here could have a big effect, and might include changing garment labels to encourage lower-temperature cleaning, specifying particular colours that tend to be laundered less frequently and on cooler temperatures, and designing with quick-drying fabrics.

Care labels

Some cultures (notably Japan) wash most of their clothes in water at room temperature (around 20ºC/68ºF); however, elsewhere most domestic washing machines have programmes that wash clothes at temperatures between 30°C (86ºF) and 90°C (194ºF). The lower the temperature at which clothes are washed, the less energy is consumed; though this is sometimes disputed, since detergents are sometimes seen to be less effective at lower temperatures with the result that more frequent washing of garments is needed in order to get clothes clean.95

Care labels in garments set out the maximum washing temperature a garment can withstand to avoid damage. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester have a lower recommended washing temperature than cotton fabrics. Recently a number of brands and retailers have started using care labels to advise consumers to use lower washing temperatures: in the UK, for example, Marks and Spencer uses the slogan ‘Think Climate, Wash at 30°C’ in its labels in an attempt to influence the environmental impact of consumer behaviour. Statistics suggest that in the UK, the effect of a shift to washing at 30°C (86ºF) rather than 40°C (104ºF) and a move away from tumble dryers to line drying would reduce the energy burden of today’s domestic washing by a third.96

Levi’s 501 jeans care label.

Levi Strauss’s recent evaluation of the life-cycle impacts of its design classic – the 501 jean – revealed that for a single pair of jeans, 60 per cent of the total CO2 emissions (32.3 kilos) was attributed to consumer care/ washing and 80 per cent of that attributed to the energy-intensive method chosen for drying.97 And of a total of 3,480.5 litres of water used during its life cycle, home washing accounted for 2,000 litres.98 These findings prompted Levi’s to launch a company-sponsored campaign to educate consumers about the benefits of shifting washing habits, including a low-temperature wash label for all garments. Levi’s has also collaborated with Tide washing powders (marketed as effective at low temperatures) and Walmart, to display Levi’s Signature brand products and Tide laundry detergents on the same pallets in Walmart stores, to make clear the connection between CO2 and garment-washing and to enable consumer action at the point of cognizance.

Low-energy wash and dry

Perhaps the most obvious drive to save resources in laundering is to improve the efficiency of laundering hardware (machines) and other inputs (such as detergent). A new generation of washing detergents has now made it possible for effective cleaning of clothes even at low temperatures (down to 15°C/59ºF). However, the limiting factor for most people is the functionality of their washing machine, as many current machines do not have the capability to reduce temperatures below 30°C (86ºF). Enhanced machine functionality could also help reduce the energy intensity of washing in other ways. Washing machines are most efficient when fully loaded, yet most studies show that consumers only half-fill their machines; so a ‘smart’ interface that weighs the load and adjusts water volume and washing time accordingly could deliver benefits. Perhaps if this were coupled with new emerging technologies such as RFID tags embedded into clothing, which could ‘communicate’ directly with the machine, the resource efficiency of laundering could be improved even further.

New technologies

In 15 prison laundries in the American state of Missouri, a different sort of technology – ozone – has been installed as a part of a push to cut water and energy consumption and to lessen the load on the municipal sewer system.99 A typical Missouri prison processes around 16,000 kilograms of laundry each day, much of which is heavily soiled and requires intensive cleaning. Ozone gas (created by passing high electrical voltage through oxygen molecules) is a powerful cleaning agent that breaks down organic material such as soil, bacteria, mould and grease. Once broken down, these particles are removed from the fabric by detergent in the wash cycle. Ozone works best in cold water, thereby negating the need for water heating. It requires less chemistry to remove stains: fewer detergents, bleaches and softeners. It also reduces the need for pre- and post-wash rinses and so shortens wash time, saving both water and energy – and because the garments undergo less mechanical agitation, wear is significantly less and longevity is increased.

The drying of clothes involves behaviours equally as involved as washing. Tumble-drying is a convenient solution for many people, but it is extremely energy-intensive. A zero-energy option is outside line-drying; however, not everyone has access to outdoor space suitable for clothes drying and in some countries bad weather is a key limiting factor. Access to safe space in order to line-dry is also important, while in some neighbourhoods, clothes lines are considered unsightly. Such organizations as Project Laundry List in New Hampshire are working to make air-drying and cold-water washing both desirable and acceptable, by combining education, lobbying and a line-drying products shop.100

Ozone gas equipment at Missouri prison laundries, using cold water and fewer chemicals.